Simple Ideas

Research Lab

Politics, Community & Society | January 4, 2012

"Evolutionary psychologists consider human emotions to be best adapted to the life our ancestors led in nomadic foraging bands."

Emotions are adapting, but slowly and suffice to say, painfully. We are running out of small nomadic bands of people on earth. There are few groups left in the Kalahari and others in what are either geographically isolated or climatically challenged areas. But by and large people are moving to cities. Given the difficulty in figuring exactly where everyone lives, we can't pinpoint the exact date. The UN was predicting over half the world population would live in major urban areas by the end of 2008. Not sure if it happened then, but at some point in the last 4 years there was significant change in how humans arranged themselves on the face of the planet.

And based on the consensus of the evolutionary psychologists, we are carrying around a fair amount of baggage from back in the day when it was all about the tribe. Your tribe vs an environment that could kill you. Your tribe vs other tribes that could kill you. Your tribe vs big scary creatures that could kill you. You get the idea, there was a lot to be afraid of. Fear was a survival skill that probably helped decide which tribes made it and which didn't.

There are at least 14 physical indications of vestigiality in the human body. Granted you need to buy into evolution and statistical analysis to fully get the idea. Most people are aware of the appendix and wisdom teeth as "stuff you have but don't really need". But there are ar least a dozen more such remnants in some versions of home sapiens.

Which brings me back to the fear response. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist working at NYU, has researched this response and found that there are two version of the response. Here is his view of the two systems

"In the older system, sensory information travels directly and quickly from the thalamus to the amygdala where it elicits the autonomic and motor responses we call fear. In the younger system, sensory information travels from the thalamus to the relevant cortical sensory areas (touch to the somatosensory cortex, vision to the visual cortex, etc.) and on to frontal association areas, where appraisal occurs."

What he is saying is that we have evolved relative to fear. The old system is still with us in some format, but the newer system appears to have more applicability to the modern experience of living in a city. Rarely do we need the fast system as we rarely have to avoid a pouncing tiger. But over time we do need to be able to develop a rational response to sales people in stores and pan handlers on street corners. As those are both products of urban life, it would appears that the new, slow system would come up with a better response than the old, fast system.

So let me give you an example of how I saw these two systems at work over the past 6 months or so. My old fast system is still there. When I broke my skull in the spring, I felt that system fire in the split second before my head was split open. I wasn't in a position to do anything more than squeeze my eyes shut. But that the response.

Lesson should have been learned. The problem was that I exited my surf board, rolled and went under the surface so that when I came up, I was facing my surfboard and presented my forehead to the board for cracking. You would have thought once would have been enough.

It wasn't. I did the exact same thing at least three more times after the injury. Each time that I did it, the fast system fired and I was lucky that there was not a repeat of the earlier accident. But after about the third time, the new slow system kicked in. Since then, I've stopped the rolling action that gets me in trouble. And I've adopted a variety of approaches to insert physical barriers between the board and my head. Granted the simplest barrier would be to "not go surfing", but then I'd be out of the research lab. That holds very little interest.

I'll end this with one other evolutionary theory. In this case it is a forward looking theory. Here the researcher is Paul Cooijmans and he reports the idea that what is now term Asperger's Syndrome is the next step in the evolution of the human being. The argument goes something like this. It is nearly impossible to find a historical figure that was considered a genius that didn't have the traits that are called Aspergoid. The society we live in now is heavily weighted on the work of these individuals, so as such, the species should be selecting the Aspergoid traits and allowing the Non-Aspergoid traits to become vestigial.

None of us will be around to see if this is how it plays out. But it will be interesting to see if the post rural environment leads to this evolutionary path.


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